Christmas in the Park, located in downtown San Jose, has been one of the Bay Area’s largest holiday celebrations, bringing families and friends together for over 30 years. Some of its main attractions include the famous “snowman hot chocolate,” ice skating, rides, food stalls and the many Christmas trees, sponsored and decorated by various organizations.
Flushed cheeks and bright smiles whiz past as blinking Christmas lights overlook Christmas in the Park’s iconic skating rink. A line for the famous snowman hot chocolate stretches across the venue, but among the many visitors are two Cricket Wireless (a cellular provider) sales representatives, complete with their green shirts, flags and brochures.
Jalen Ramond and Jessica Geraci are working their first day on the job, and they’re doing it with smiles on their faces.
“If you carry yourself with a certain amount of silliness, you kinda coach people into how to treat you,” Geraci said. “So if you’re just having fun with it, a lot of people, even if they’re not in the mood, will take a flyer and might inquire later on.”
Their shift runs from the morning until the park closes at 12 a.m. Although the work hours are long and a lot of the passersby aren’t very receptive, the duo finds ways to stay positive.
“You just gotta keep smiling,” Ramond said. “You know, smiling is contagious.”
And with Christmas right around the corner, they each have their own things to look forward to.
“I’m excited for every day, honestly,” Geraci said. “I love Christmas in the Park so even though downtown San Jose is like so-so… I’m very fortunate that I get to do this at least for three more days.”
Ramond, on the other hand, holds a simpler view.
“Yeah I’m excited,” Ramond said. “Christmas is always the best time of the year, smiles stuff you know?”
With steaming hot chocolate in their hands, junior Pavithra Pandian and Eastside High School senior Jose Sainz walk through the bright displays of Christmas trees and holiday decorations.
For Pandian, Christmas in the Park has been a tradition since 2004, and she’s been coming every year since.
“We were young so my parents were like ‘Oh, let’s go cause it’s Christmas time anyway’,” Pandian said, “and then after a while me and my sister were like ‘we have to go because it’s tradition.’”
When Pandian comes to Christmas in the Park, she makes sure to get the hot chocolate and stop by the ice skating rink. The tradition of coming to the Park gets her into the holiday spirit, along with putting up a Christmas tree and listening to festive music at home.
On the other hand, it was Sainz’s first time at the park.
“This is my first time here so we’ve just been walking around,” Sainz said. “I’m too afraid to ice skate, so I won’t ice skate, but the hot chocolate’s good and [the park’s] nice and pretty.”
No festival is complete without balloon animals, and Christmas in the Park is no exception. But Kenny the Clown, or Kenny the Elf as he’s known around Christmas, does much more than just balloon animals.
“I also ran for mayor of San Francisco one time, and Alameda twice,” said the Alameda native, whose real name is Kenneth Kahn.
Fourteen years ago, as a grad student at San Jose State University, Kahn got into the clown business at a costume party. The woman who put on Kahn’s makeup told his former girlfriend that he would make a pretty good clown, and he’s been doing the job ever since.
He now travels all over the United States, from New Orleans to Hawaii, and ranks San Jose’s Christmas in the Park as one of his favorite destinations because of the high-energy, festive atmosphere filled with families in the holiday spirit.
“Someone once told me… if you find a job you love to do you don’t have to work a day in your life,” Kahn said, while tying a balloon butterfly and handing it to an expectant little girl.
“Just being able to give out joy and happiness is just fun to do…and you get paid for it.”
“SPIRIT ACRES,” one of them reads in bold, black font reminiscent of the wild west. “THE BEACH HOUSE,” reads another, with an intricately carved crab underneath. These are all wooden signs, hand-crafted and personalized by woodworker James Greene. It all began with a shop at Bass Lake, where Greene’s brothers got jobs, only for Greene to get one as well. Each sign is hand-carved using only Greene’s hands and an arsenal of low-tech equipment.
“We hand carve free-hand all these signs with routers like that one there,” Greene said, “so we don’t use any stencils or anything like that so everything’s hand-made. We’re very low-tech. We’re low-tech in the center of high-tech.”
In his 30 years doing woodwork, Greene’s passion has taken him to the farthest corners of the United States, from Tucson to Seattle. He began coming to Christmas in the Park to sell and showcase his work after attending the Santa Clara County fair for several years. But the fair “went away for a few years,” so Greene looked to Christmas in the Park as an alternative venue. One of the most rewarding aspects of Greene’s job is the fact that everything he makes is a representation of America. With every cut of a wooden block, every stroke of sandpaper and every sign he sells, Greene interacts with a variety of people across a wide range of locations.
Greene’s passion for people and his beloved woodworkings is ultimately what gets him up for work every morning. Woodworking, after all, is an art that Greene deems an astounding feat of human achievement.
“They’re all awesome,” Greene said. “Are you kidding, that’s real wood, that’s made by humans, right? Made by humans on real wood, by hand. It’s art. Art is priceless.”
MVHS alumni Rachel Poulo has been coming to Christmas in the Park since she was 10 years old. And now that she’s back from her first semester at UC Davis, Poulo is happy to continue the tradition.
“I love the ice skating and the hot chocolate is amazing, especially cause it’s like shaped like a snowman and it’s adorable,” Poulo said.
Poulo finds Christmas in the Park to be a great way to get into the holiday spirit aside from activities her family does, like attend church and exchange presents, since she usually comes with her friends. And after not having seen some of her friends for months, Poulo is excited for the opportunity to catch up.
But as she giggles with her friends in line for the ice skating rink, she feels that ice skating is the one activity that truly brings in the holiday spirit.
“Ice skating’s probably my favorite,” Poulo said, “Cause it’s fun to go with your friends and watch them fall.”
At the center of all of the commotion in Christmas in the Park stand two women greeting and assisting passersby at the event. Wearing red sweaters and tags which say “Board of Directors,” they radiate authority and confidence. One of them is Martie Degutis, who has been on the Board of Directors for Christmas in the Park for 20 years, and next to her is Karin Cogville, who was recruited by the Executive Director of the Park five years ago. Collectively, the two have not only invested countless hours into the 40-year-old holiday tradition, but have also shared a passion for their work each day.
“My favorite part is just seeing the little kids and just how excited they are to see Santa,” Cogville said, “to see all of the lights, to see the new displays, and just the families get[ting] to make new traditions every year.”
Ever since being recruited by the telephone company Pioneers, one of the event’s first sponsors, Degutis has seen many changes take place, including the way displays and clothing have been modernized and the difference in creators of decorations.
“It used to be done by all volunteers,” Degutis said. “So you would look at it and say ‘Yeah, a three-year-old painted that.’ And now you’re looking and going ‘Wow!’ So there is a huge difference because we’re more self-sustaining now than we were 20 years ago. ”
However, it would be a fallacy to say that the Christmas tradition has changed drastically over the years. Some things simply never change. For one thing, families continue to come to the park yearly to enjoy the displays and have a cup of hot chocolate. But behind the opulent lights and action, those who have made the annual tradition happen continue to do what they love most: providing a free community event for those of all ages to enjoy.